Understanding what is trendy and selling—and what simply isn’t—is crucial for those looking at, and working in, the Chinese book market. Numbers tell the story, and as such, the first conference session at the recently concluded China Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair, which featured Beijing-based OpenBook, a clearinghouse for publishing statistics in China, was standing room only.
The OpenBook market analysis, which covers the first 10 months of 2023, shed light on major shifts within the Chinese book market. The children’s segment accounted for 26.9% of the country’s total retail book market during the period while recording a sales decline of 5.4%. A year prior, the segment held 28.61% with a 10.41% decline. The latest OpenBook figures recorded a 2.2% and 1% sales increase in 2020 and 2021, respectively, with a market share holding around 28%.
1. Short-Video E-Commerce Channel Rules
Live streaming and vlogging was a new feature at this year’s CCBF. Some exhibitors, including Belgium-based Clavis, had their vloggers promoting and selling books directly from their booths. Influencers were everywhere, visiting booths armed with selfie sticks and/or gofers, picking up titles that attracted their attention, and immediately sharing thoughts with their followers.
The short-video e-commerce channel—through TikTok, Xiaohongshu, Weibo, and WeChat apps, for instance—accounted for 40.3% of the total children’s book sales in China in the first 10 months of 2023, according to OpenBook. This figure is much lower than the 2022 peak of 56.14%. OpenBook also found that bricks-and-mortar outlets contributed 14.9% to the overall sales, up by nearly 2% compared to the same time period a year earlier. This bucks the downward trend of the past decade, lending hope that the physical distribution channel is finally turning a corner.
2. Telling More Chinese Stories
There is an obvious preference for folk stories and those unique to the Chinese culture, according to sales manager David Meggs of U.K.-based Award Publications. “Our Treasury of Fairy Tales series, for instance, no longer grabs the attention of Chinese publishers as it did five or more years ago.” The long pandemic lockdown, he said, “probably brought about the realization that Western tales such as Pinocchio and Snow White do not encourage Chinese children to appreciate their own culture, heritage, and traditions.” So local publishers and homegrown illustrators are working together more than ever to dig deep into China’s cultural history to find interesting nuggets and ideas for new publications. And this, Meggs said, “is a good thing for overseas publishers looking for unique Chinese stories to add to their catalogs.”
Numerous competitions for original illustrations have been key in cultivating homegrown talent. The Golden Pinwheel Young Illustrators Competition, for instance, has been associated with CCBF since its inaugural 2013 edition. This year’s grand awards in the Book Publishing segment went to Liu Longsha’s work The Different “1” and Maeva Rubli for My Secret Box. Then there is the Key Colours Competition China, which was established in 2016 by Belgian publisher Philippe Werck of Clavis, to nurture and motivate budding illustrators. Some 850 entries were received this year with the grand prize of 7,500 euro going to Gang Meiting for her work Evernessland.
3. Translations Remain Popular
According to OpenBook, around 20,000 new children’s titles entered the market during the first 10 months of 2023, and 40% of these were translations, with the majority coming from the U.K. and U.S. Titles such as Charlotte’s Web, Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window, and Guess How Much I Love You dominated the bestseller lists.
But as managing director Betty Tan of Singapore-based English Corner Publications said, “When a market is saturated with translations, then local works get lost in the mix. This means that rights activities are skewed towards incoming rather than outgoing [titles]. For China to tell and promote its stories to the world, there need to be more uniquely Chinese works in the market and at its book fairs.”
4. Pop-Science Reigns
Pop-science has been the top genre within the Chinese children’s book market even before the pandemic, followed by children’s literature titles and picture books. Figures from the OpenBook presentation showed that short-video e-commerce and platform-based channels sell more pop-science titles, whereas bricks-and-mortar outlets are better at promoting and selling children’s literature. The Magic School Bus series and Aleksandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielinski’s Maps and Under Water, Under Earth, for instance, are long-running bestsellers in translation.
5. Manga-Style Nonfiction Gains Popularity
The blending of nonfiction, in particular of STEM and STEAM topics, with manga-style illustrations is the latest formula. Chinese children, who are used to comics, want the same fun and colorful content when it comes to drier and more serious subjects. Parents and educators, on the other hand, find the fun/serious blend crucial in getting their children to read and learn.